Studying unseen fiction (part 1)


garden-gnome-523380_640One of the real pleasures of teaching CIE iGCSE Literature this year was preparing students for analysis of unseen prose fiction. Unlike the Language counterpart – the prose fiction selected by Cambridge have always unusual, interesting and challenging.

The new English Language GCSE sticks unseen fiction back in the game from this September and whether you have chosen a board that does contemporary or old, it will be something to tackle.

It’s a bit different, but the same as well.


Prose extracts whether they are from short or long fiction provide a unique opportunity to test students independent inference and deduction skills. After all, we aren’t in the room to clarify plot, character, themes and purpose. Nor is there the typical Unit 1 shouty headline and garish picture choice to help guide understanding.  Students are presented with part of a text, rather than a whole. They are literally in medias res.

How did I work it out?

Culture of strong readers

Now is this time – more than ever before – to look at the culture of reading in your school. It is clear that students who are strong readers – whether they read extensively for pleasure or not – will be more successful than those who aren’t. I have written before about the importance of developing readers who are confident. In this new exam, we cannot risk students who stumble through sentences struggling to decode individual words at the loss of whole passage meaning.

But how, here are a few things I have tried:

  1. Talk a lot about what I read. I don’t just mean the obligatory Miss L is reading posters. I have used whole school assembly time to talk about reading, struggling with reading, about books.  I regularly start my lessons with a book review, a mini-read (the bit just before the oh-shit moment is always a good one to read), a book trailer. Talk about books a lot.
  2. Article of the week. This is something else that I have written on before. The idea from Kelly Gallagher was first implemented to build cultural knowledge – to get students to think about current issues, to help them understand the world they are growing up. For part of the year – I did this. It resulted in some of the best classroom conversations I have ever had. See here for one.
    The idea is that each week you set an article for a homework task and students respond to it with some reflective writing. This can work just as well with prose fiction extracts and in fact, although I loved the discussions that resulted from the non-fiction articles I set, I loved even more the learning that resulted from the prose extracts.

Teaching unseen prose fiction – what, how and maybe why?

The process seemed pretty simple to me, at the beginning. We need to be able to pick up any extract and say what was going on, how the writer created these goings and why.

So working out what is happening in an unseen text is the first port of call. Basic comprehension seems obvious enough. Yet we don’t often tackle it in KS3 anymore, not cold, without any surrounding prior knowledge. In terms out that actions and events are easily misinterpreted.

Here is the process we came up with (minus the exam question hoo-ha):

  1. Read the text. Read it again. Read it a third time.
  2. Write a bullet summary of the WHAT covering – characters, events, relationships.  WHAT the writer is doing.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? I challenge you to try it – perhaps even with this CIE old exam paper. Unseen lit paper – example 1 It’s amazing what different versions of the conversation between Dr Aziz and Mrs Moore I got. Were they arguing, were they flirting, are they friends, strangers?

We spent more time than expected get good and accurate at reading the WHAT in unseen texts.  This is where my prose fiction article of the week came in useful. But also 100s of paragraph long extracts as starter tasks.

Next came how – HOW is the writer are doing the WHAT?

    1. We would always start with dialogue for prose fiction, CIE are pretty reliable at choosing an extract with good dialogue.
      How does the dialogue reveal character, relationships?
      How does the dialogue move the action forward?
      How does the dialogue reveal history, background?
    2. Setting is another one that students can get their mitts on with relative ease – how does the writer bring the place to life?
    3. Mood is less easy if you haven’t done prior work on it. Mood in prose fiction is often connected with those awful vague adjectives like gloomy and eerie. I think mood and reader’s reaction are also sometimes confused.   This blog does a better job of explaining it –  I use the list of mood words here to study sentences and short extracts before we tackle longer ones. I have some lesson resources to share on mood shortly.
    4. Language, form and structure come more naturally – they are ingrained in our curriculum and students tend to be happy finding techniques. The above groundwork should ensure that they have something to say once they have found them.
    5. Themes and ideas can be another tricky one – while it might be possible to identify the theme of mortality or death in an extract concerning a funeral, it would be very difficult for a student to infer where the writer might be going with that idea.  We don’t have a long view.  We can hedge our bets “The writer might be suggesting” but before we go this far, we have to ask what are the expectation of analysing themes in an unseen text? It is not the same as looking at science and religion in Jekyll & Hyde.

Why – why is the writer up to all this?

To adequately look at themes and ideas, we must tackle the WHY. And if I’m honest – this was the area that I found most difficult. We are used to teaching the writer’s purpose, intention. After all every text has a message – we know that.   So tricky was the why, that it deserves it’s very own blog post. Soon, promise.

Thanks for reading

ps. You may want to ignore all of the above after results day next week.



Book review: Raising Achievement by Caroline Bentley-Davies

Raising Achievement

The Teachers’ Pocketbook series is designed as handy overview of some the key areas of interest to teachers and school leaders. Raising Achievement does just that. Although it is easy to forget it is a pocketbook at all – so vast are the areas that Caroline Bentley-Davies manages to cover. At 128 pages including the myths of achievement; relevant research; metacognition; countless practical tips and a self-audit. There is nothing reduced or curtailed in this overview of raising achievement. Brevity and precision focus on the topic are what Caroline Bentley-Davies achieves and this is to our benefit.

The view here is holistic, there is no miracle cure for raising achievement – it cannot be done at the snap of our fingers, yet Caroline Bentley-Davies brings a lot of hope in her clear, strategic and practical approach. She covers honestly the issues for classroom teachers, students themselves, support teams, SLT and parents. The practical tips cover everything from first teaching strategies, to feedback, to revision. Sutton Trust and John Hattie are neatly segued into her practical thinking, as is Dweck’s Growth Mindset. While the case studies may be slightly obvious, Caroline Bentley-Davies highlights the gaps and errors we all make when we are hurrying through our curriculum.

Raising achievement is a thing, even in schools where results are good. There are always groups who are underachieving, they might not be pupil premium or able lazy boys, but they are there. It’s easy to think that if we just get on with good teaching then these groups should make progress like everyone. Right? No. It is clear from reading this book that I can look again at how I deal with the graffiti girls and sporting heroes in my school. But the best thing is – I don’t feel that crushing dread at the thought of tackling this issue, because now I have an overview of the ins and outs and some practical tips to try. I really like the idea of family learning – that’s first on my agenda.

I can honestly say I would never pick up a book with ‘raising achievement’ in its title. But I am glad I did.

I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in return for a fair review.

Don’t panic – 100% exam

blog 1Exam prep getting you twitchy yet?
Yeah me too.

I have a bunch of exam classes this year, one however is causing me to pause and think.

My top set year 11 English class are doing (essentially) 100% exam for Language and Literature.

The decision was taken in late September that they would take (in addition to the planned CIE iGCSE Literature qualification) the 80% exam version of CIE iGCSE Language.  The 20% being the S&L that remains with this qualification.

I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores here.  Yet – it continues to make me pause.  Their exam schedule will go something like this:

  1. Language Extended Reading paper – 3 questions on 2 unseen texts
  2. Language Directed Writing paper – 2 questions based on unseen 1 text
  3. Literature Prose and Poetry closed text – 2 questions, 1 on Literary Heritage text and 1 on a collection of poetry
  4. Literature Drama open text – 1 question on a Shakespeare play
  5. Literature Unseen – 1 question on an unseen extract or poem.

Rather than preparing for this over two academic years, we have had just one.  In that time we have read Jekyll & Hyde, the CIE poetry collection – Songs of Ourselves and The Tempest.

As a result, being exam ready is taking on a whole new meaning for me.  The sheer volume of material to cover for the Literature means I have had to teach the Language elements implicitly whilst teaching the Literature.

Last Monday evening, I delivered a staff INSET session on practical approaches to exam readiness.   Below is a brief summary of my approach – which is inspired by Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect (which I highly recommend).


1. Encode success – content is king.
It would have been very easy for me to rush through the knowledge content of the course.  Knowing that you have 6 months to prepare students for 5 exams and read 3 texts, might result in a pressure kick.  Whilst I do believe in ensuring there is time for revision, I could not rush the teaching.  It took us from September through to early December to read Jekyll and Hyde.  December and January were dedicated to the 15 poems and now we re-reading The Tempest in its entirety.


We revised and tested our knowledge as we went.  Writing essays, summarising, creating revision resources along the way.  They will be no time for in-depth revision later.

2. Analyse the game and embed the process


Yet this is not an exercise in intelligent curiosity.  Pupils are studying for a purpose and as broad ranging as my class discussions may be, their examination answers are the end product.  We must be realistic about the hoops that examiners asks pupils to jump through.  Know them and show them.


Within this is instilling confidence with exam questions and answer processes.

The wording of individual exam questions is predictable.  There is often a rubric used, so that the given content of a year is almost the only change.  It seems logical to share this rubric with students.  Have them sort it out, internalise it and remove the fear.  To give them an extract and have them use the rubric (aka exam question generator) write an easy exam question, a tough one, one they would love, one they would hate, the left-field one, the one even Mrs Enstone would hate.

Hand in hand with this goes the rubric process of answering a question.  Mark schemes don’t change year on year and as such we should be able to help pupils articulate and internalise the process of answering any question.  “Question 1 Miss? I need to do this, this and this. So first I’m going to…”

3. Isolate the skill


The skill of memorisation cannot be championed in the classroom enough.  My students are fantastically knowledgeable about the texts we have studied.  Yet their ability to apply sophisticated technical literary terminology is still emerging. It’s only through dedicated classroom time to memorising can I ensure that this vocabulary is confidently secured early.  Linking texts and ideas to critical terminology makes sense.

blog 2

Literary terminology can be like stacking dolls – once you remember one term, they kind of unstack around you and suddenly you’ve remembered 15 clever words.

Those triggers are easy to identify and pounce on – I use bits of the examination hall as the triggers. A photo of the door, the lights, the clock.

A photo of the stage in our examination hall reminds us of: Stagecraft > Caricatures > Facades > Duplicity > Repression > Social norms > Stereotypes > Gender.

Each of these terms links to moments in the texts we have studied. Each idea can be unpacked precisely and in detail.  Each will trigger a series of single word quotations.

4. Make a P.L.A.N


We don’t have time to create and learn different approaches to essay planning. The questions and mark schemes are too varied.  I don’t want my pupils to have to pause and search for a different plan for each question. I trust they know the content and are prepared – the PLAN strategy works for each question on every paper. P.L.A.N was suggested by the very lovely Mrs S (@HeadofEnglish) – it hasn’t failed me yet.

5. Plan with marks in mind

Planning with marks in mind means I must tackle the hard questions now – or even way before now.

Do we know how to gain full marks?
Could we write a full marks answer in exam conditions?
Is this true for every question on every paper?

My class is an A/A* group – I must be able to answer yes to these questions, otherwise what am I doing in my classroom?


Being an examiner helps (though not in a literal sense as I don’t teach the exam board I examine for), yet it’s the research that counts. Reading examiners reports, studying exemplars, recalling papers, writing answers myself and having them marked.

6. Plan to the last minute

I’m pretty confident now with the CIE exams. I know where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Now students can play these to their advantage.


Why not answer the questions in a different order?

If pupils have internalised all the knowledge and processes needed beforehand, the mystery and fear of the paper is removed. The last step is ask the question ‘which is my best route to full marks?’ For some this maybe answering the questions in a different order.

7. Think aloud


You’ve probably heard of a walking/talking mock. I don’t exactly know what they are and have never used this strategy.  But I do like to do a Think Aloud answer.

This goes back to my point about being confident that I could write a full marks answer.

It’s a simple process, outlined in the picture above. The essential key is that I say aloud my every thought. As I am thinking, planning and writing – I am verbally modelling for students my thought process and how I go about writing.

Sometimes I put students in charge of listening for different AOs, writing down only key words or counting quotes etc.  They can write a P.L.A.N as I talk or just write the thesis statements.  For the language papers – they often give me the Reading marks as we go, they work out how well I am ‘using my own words’ or when I move up a Band on the writing marks.  Then it’s their turn.

As I said at the beginning, these are just a few of the key strategies I am using with year 11 this year.  I’m hoping that they are fruitful for this amazing and resilient class.

Thanks for reading.


Article of the Week #3

Body image pic


Here is this week’s gathering of non-fiction articles and questions.

Body Image is the topic: with one article on criticism of the Obama girls’ fashion sense and the second extract an NHS fact sheet on body image.

As ever I have included new GCSE style short and long answer questions, a comparison question and two transactional writing tasks.

Download here: Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Have a great week.


Article of the Week #1

matter of factI am growing more and more aware that my current repository of ‘go-to’ non-fiction is not good enough.  The selection is too narrow and too old.

Each week I am will upload a non-fiction article and accompanying questions for use in the classroom.

These articles will be aimed at Year 9 + students so will be suitable for GCSE preparation or using in new 2017 GCSE units of work.

If you spot any great non-fiction as you are reading – do tweet it to me!

Here’s the first one.

Article of the Week – January #1

Why it’s time to let it go – Guardian – 17/12/2014

Writing thematic knowledge units

titanic fail

When I first joined my school last Easter, there was a scheme of work in the Year 7 folder dubiously titled “Titanic Leaflet”.

I was asked to teach it.

On further investigation it turns out this unit was exactly what it advertised to be.  Several weeks taken watching the Titanic film, reading bits of the Titanic book (based on the film) and then writing a leaflet for the Titanic voyage.

To cut a long story short – I didn’t.

Thankfully the new KS3 curriculum and new GCSEs gave me enough ammunition to dispose of leaflet writing, without me actually coming out and saying – this is possibly the biggest waste of time ever.

Easter 2014 feels a long time ago.  My opinions have come back to bite me, as I now take lead on the KS3 curriculum.  Remember that – opinions equal more work.  The upside being saying a hearty farewell to the Titanic unit without ever having touched it.  Yay for me.

Our new Year 7 English curriculum looks like this.  Our main aims were to:

  1. Put in hard stuff.
  2. Build up knowledge (and skills) from a logical point A to end of the year.


All of our units are heavily literature based, especially the writing ones.  I am firm believer in the idea that “the more you read, the better you write”.

So, this holiday I find myself planning a thematic unit.  Our students will look at the mystery (crime / detective) genre and write their own mystery story.  Sounds ok. Just.  But our students don’t deserve ok. They deserve something that has meat on its bones. Whilst that’s easy to achieve with Shakespeare or Dickens, a thematic unit can make it tricky.  Jumping from one thing to another, one text to another can result in students losing knowledge rather than retaining it.

So here’s how I’ve gone about creating a thematic knowledge unit.  Btw Joe Kirby has written excellently on knowledge units. Read his stuff.

Thematic unit based on knowledge – what do they need to know?


  1. The history of the mystery genre – all the way from Cicero to John Grisham.
    Students need an overview of the whole mystery timeline and specific moments that are vital (see texts).
  2. The conventions of the mystery genre and all its derivatives.
  3. The language and vocabulary of mysteries. There is a lexis, we need to study it.
  4. Mystery writing – applying the above to own writing.

Doesn’t seem like too much for a whole unit?  Perhaps not. Yet each text provides a new opportunity to studying and using the conventions.  What are the clues here? How are they set up?  Where are the breadcrumbs this writer is leaving us?  What are your clues? How should you set them up?

Our learning here is in a spiral or a cycle. We learn something and then come back to it again and again, with the same text, with different texts and with our own writing. Each and every time.


The texts are perhaps the most tricky – you navigate the fine line between those that are worthy of study as readers and writers and those that are popular.  My unit is heavy on the ones worthy of study (although I understand why some would challenge that on ACD).  Yet I do include as starters, plenaries, homeworks a variety of exemplars including John Grisham and that one about Da Vinci’s maths book.

  1. Key mystery texts worthy of study for genre conventions and beauty of language, style, technique:
    Poe – The Murders at Morgue Rue (other works by Poe are studied in short story units later in KS3).
    Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet
    Christie – extracts from Murder on the Orient Express (1934), And Then There Were None (1939) and A Murder is Announced (1950)
    Bradbury – The Utterly Perfect Murder
  2. Other texts to study for genre conventions and developing genre knowledge:
    Radio Drama – The Death House Rescue – The Shadow 1937
    Sterling’s Twilight Zone
    Historical non-fiction eg Roanoke Colony mystery
    2 Minute Mysteries by Donald Sobol (for starters and plenaries)

Here is what the SOW looks like.  Depending on the classes involved students will either write a short mystery (800 words) or extracts from a mystery – the setting, the denouement.

mystery 1

Whilst this new unit is by no means perfect, it certainly provides for more and greater learning than writing a leaflet.

It does tick a number of boxes:

  1. Students are studying hard stuff – we aren’t watching films or TV versions. We are reading Poe and others, borrowing their language, studying their techniques and using them for ourselves.
    We aren’t writing essays but we are reading as writers.
  2. Students are exposed to a wide range of good literature over a short period of time.  Short stories are great for this, as are extracts.  After all, the new GCSE is all about the 400 word extract.
  3. Reading and writing go hand in hand. Reading and then writing imaginatively immediately is an excellent response to reading – especially when you are challenged to use the writer’s language, techniques and structure. Rather than writing a newspaper article based on the story – which is about as useful as a leaflet advertising the Titanic.
  4. While I doubt the new GCSE will ask them to write a mystery text in the exam, my students will know and understand the conventions of this popular genre and this will aid their study of unseen literary fiction.

After all, who’s know what will come up on the 2017 exams?

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!


When Kids Can’t Read

This is my long overdue review of Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do

kylene beers


The first thing to note is that even for an Edu tome, Beers’ 2009 book is pretty expensive.  Adding in shipping from the US, I paid around £27.00 for it, this post outlines to what extent it was worth it.

Why this book?

This year my school have picked up teaching The Giver in Year 8 (my recent post about this is here), this text is popular in the US and many of the ideas for teaching it seemed to reference some reading strategies I had never heard of – “Think Aloud”, “Say Something”.  I was curious.

With much focus on the new KS3 curriculum and the challenge of a new GCSE, perhaps a new set of strategies might be in order.  I am horrifyingly aware that our students now need to confident and independent readers.

Was it worth it?

I am going to say upfront – that this book is without doubt the most challenging and inspiring I have read in the last six years.  It is practical, academically rigorous and wholly focussed on students and their success.

Beers’ book does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a guide for teachers of secondary school age students, outlining the numerous problems with teenagers’ reading and how they can be tackled.

beers 3


Her thinking seems to have stemmed from genuine experiences in her own practice and that of colleagues.  Tackling students who were unable to read the words on the page, then unable to read with any fluency or comprehension and then tackling issues of vocabulary and spelling, before tackling helping students respond to texts.

Below is one example of her ability to articulate clearly the issues in her classroom.

Beers 1 Beers 2

There are many moments of dialogue in this book, dialogue recorded between herself and students or herself and other teachers.  While they do ring somewhat of ‘the American self-help’ book genre, they also serve the purpose of practical analogies for me to frame reference my classroom experience.

I began to realise that the problems I experience stem from issues so different from one another, that a one-off lesson in comprehension just wouldn’t cut it.

The mantra:

Anyone who’s been around education for a while now knows the mantra “making the implicit explicit” *nod to @LearningSpy*.  Beers’ worldview is no different. She just increases the number of things we need to make explicit.  Her challenge is that so many of our behaviours as confident readers are subconscious, that we must as teachers explicitly and intentionally teach them and then model them constantly.  I have written briefly about this before.

Not only does Beers’ tackle the decoding of words (including some very interesting discussion of the impact of Synthetic Phonics on students who were reaching Middle & High School at the time) and word recognition skills, she also has chapters on:

  • Creating Independent Readers
  • Assessing the needs of Dependent Readers – how to work out where to start
  • Explicit instruction of comprehension
  • Learning to make an inference
  • Frontloading meaning – pre-reading strategies. This one caused me some problems – is it possible to develop pre-reading strategies for the new “unseen” elements of GCSE? I am beginning to see some light on this. More on it in a later blog.
  • Constructing meaning – during reading strategies
  • Extending meaning – after reading strategies
  • Vocabulary – how to figure out what words mean (some fabulous stuff on prefix and suffixes here)
  • Fluency and automaticity
  • Word recognition
  • Spelling – moving from word lists to how words work
  • Building the confidence to respond (to texts, in class, in writing)
  • Finding the right book

All of the above with practical lessons outlining each element of knowledge needed and how to teach, demonstrate and build confidence in each skill.

Beers’ literally (yes, literally) steps into the classroom with each new strategy and explores how lessons using it were or were not successful.  Where learning needed to be paused and retaught or approached differently.

Each chapter ends with an imaginary Q&A session – Beers’ foreseeing my British scepticism anticipates our problems with turning her thinking into classroom practice.

The just under 100 pages of appendices include templates and lesson plans, spelling lists, book lists for a variety of levels. The book itself is 370 odd pages long – and textbook sized.  This is no mean guide.


When Kids Can’t Read is definitely a practical guide (along the lines of How to be a brilliant English teacher) – it is jammed packed full of ideas and moments of realisation.  But it is not vacuous in its academic rigour – Beers’ clearly knows her stuff.  She references most of the major research into reading in the US during 90s and early 2000s, as mentioned above her knowledge of policy and policy making of reading in the US seems to go beyond that of someone mildly interested.  She has a big picture view but never seems to take her eye off individual students.

Beers’, although she has left the classroom, no doubt left her heart there.

Should you buy it?

As I stated at the outset – I love this book. It is expensive but worth it. Cheeky aside – many of Beers’ strategies are so widely used in the US that they can be found online with a simple search.  Don’t be fooled though. The strategies are fantastic, but it is Beers’ clear explanation of the issues behind the strategies that are revelatory. Without that exposition, you really aren’t doing anything more that making your powerpoint look different.

For English departments where students are entering Year 7 on a Level 5/6 but showing poor fluency, comprehension or understanding of written texts, then I think this book might be right up your street.  For departments where you are now carrying the burden of teaching students to read, this is a mature guide to dealing with this issue and teenagers.

Our English departments tend to be littered with Literature graduates, we are confident readers. We are not always confident with grammar, spelling and vocabulary – this text can help. We are also not always confident with articulating a process that is so natural to us – this text can help.

It will explain to you what you do automatically and how you can help your students do that too.

By embedding some of these strategies into my teaching, I am already beginning to see students more confident in their own opinions and ideas.

They are no longer grappling with a text and then listening carefully for my ideas or the ideas of the 3 or 4 confident readers in the room.

They are beginning to form their own inferences, viewpoints and connections.

Below are some examples of how I am beginning to try out Beers’ vocabulary, spelling and comprehension strategies.

beers 5 beers 4










beers 6

beers 7

Thanks for reading.


Why The Giver keeps on giving

giver 3

It’s pure coincidence, I promise you, although I suspect you won’t believe me. As part of a dystopian fiction unit, Year 8 are reading The Giver this year. We chose it before we knew about the film.

Lois Lowry’s novel is 20 years old and has been the staple of Language Arts classrooms in the US from its first publication. This does not surprise me. For the first time since I began teaching the students in my classroom want to read on and on.

They are gripped by the world Lowry creates, with its eerie familiarity. They are gripped by idea of a perfect world where nothing is what it seems. They are gripped by the secrets and lies. They are gripped by the rules and placid obedience. They are gripped by the pervading atmosphere of horror that never actually slips past the veneer of polite indifference.

They are gripped by the truth. The ability to see our lives in the lives of the characters. The ability to see our government in their elders. The truth that perhaps our secrets and lies may be the same secrets and lies.

But – is it enough to teach a book that simply grips students?

So far in the last 8 weeks I have used The Giver to teach:

  1. Explicit reading strategies*, such as:
    Think Aloud (see here for more on this one)
    Cornell Note taking
    Double entry journaling
  2. Comprehension strategies*, such as:
    Say Something (see here for more on this one)
    Identification of key moments
    Identification of key techniques: contrasts and contradictions, moments of realisation, advice taken and ignored, flashbacks and memories (key for this text), questions asked and not answered.
  3. Literary analysis, such as:
    Modes of characterisation used
    Analysis of language and structure techniques
    Explicit teaching of literal and inferred meanings of language used
    Use of double entry journal for independent analysis
    Links between language and ideas or themes
    Identification of narrative and authorial voice
    Links between different dystopian texts and The Giver
    Links between The Giver and our own world
  4. Creative response:
    The treatment of elderly in the novel, different societies and our society
    The issue of conflict and the modern world
    To what extent is Britain a dystopia
    The importance of freedom in a democratic society

I’m not sure what else you can ask from a text. I haven’t mentioned the vocabulary, spelling and grammar work the text also enables.

The upsides for me: Students love this book, therefore they love talking and ultimately writing about it, whether its a creative response (like the ones below) or an essay.

Win, win.

If you are looking for a new KS3 text, I highly recommend The Giver.  Who cares if the film just came out?

*If you are interested in the reading and comprehension strategies I have mentioned – I recommend Kylene Beers’ books on reading in the English classroom.

giver 5a

giver 4

giver 2
giver 1

conflict 1

Love Analysis: Essay writing research – phase 1

Essays written in English lessons are flabby.


Like a 50 year old man sitting down to watch the rugby, we have sort out comfort and ease.  A cosy chair – the ‘easy’ chair – in just the right place, the remote within reach (perhaps in one of those attractive over the arm tidy things). The ‘easy’ chair of the English classroom is the PEE architecture used to firstly meet the assessment criteria and secondly meet the assessment criteria in nice ‘easy’ steps.

I have said (numerously) since I first blogged on this research project last April, I have a number of problems with English essays.  I have summarised their main crimes below (and to serve as a context for what follows):

  • Often they start and finish as a gap-fill exercise.
  • They require little articulation of individual thought.
  • They lack cohesion and genuine argument (used here in its true sense).
  • They lack interest – as a piece of writing created they are often the least interesting to read.
  • They don’t often demonstrate knowledge or understanding.
  • They serve little purpose to the writer.

Whilst my hyperbole doesn’t do us all justice. It’s amazing how marking 300+ exam papers makes it seem true. (Intuition and anecdote are not fact klaxon).

Undertaking classroom research

I am apprehensive about calling this project ‘research’.  It’s been 20 years since I did my degree and even then serious study wasn’t my focus.  I worked two jobs and got married. Added to this, research has become a bit of thing in the Edu-sphere and dare I say it, there is an inner circle of those deemed wise or thoughtful enough to comment and then everyone else.  I am definitely the everyone else.

But the question keeps nagging me, and it has followed me from my old school – through a term and a half of supply – and onto my new school.

If I don’t teach Year 7 “the English essay” with PEE and sentence stems and all that gubbins. If I do something else, could it improve their writing?  Don’t worry I’m not about to burst into a rousing chorus of “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

I’m more of a Tolstoy girl anyway.


Expected and unexpected outcomes:

You probably think from my writing above that I want PEE to fail.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  I want essays that don’t mean anything to fail. I want essays where paragraphs with no tangible links to fail (how many times have I read paragraph A on George is father-like and paragraph B on George has had enough of Lennie – with no link, no link!).  I want gap-fill to fail.

joke 2

I am not predetermining the results. I hope I am not.

I also know that it isn’t going to be the data that I produce with just 64 students that matters, or that makes a difference.  In many ways it’s the fact that I am focused on it that will make a difference.  I want to teach PEE really well. So that the class that learns PEE end up writing genius essays AND I want to find an approach that isn’t PEE.  I want the students who won’t learn PEE to write something utterly staggering too.

Maybe we can all be winners.

So what I am doing?


I have two year 7 classes, I see each one once a week and they are equivalents sets from each half of the year.  These two hours will be my research hours.  One class will be my test group (no PEE) and one my control group (PEE).  Both classes have equal numbers of boys and girls in. Although one class has a slightly greater number of students with higher levels. Both classes have students in who were ranked as being in the top 5% of the country in their KS2 SATs.

Among other admin tasks we are writing to parents to explain the project and asking permission to use work generated as part of the write up.  Once I get beyond Phase 1, each lesson with both classes will be filmed.

The text I am using for study in this project is the very short story Ruthless by William De Mille.  The text of which is widely available on the internet.

Phase 1: Love Analysis

The first 4 – 5 lessons of the project are the same for both classes.  I have titled this phase “Love Analysis”.  In order to give both classes enough opportunity to read, discuss and analyse prior to writing – we will spend four lessons unpicking this short story, the characters and literary techniques.

At this point there is no discussion of an essay question or analytical writing.  Any written responses produced in lesson are exploratory, recounts or creative.

I have shared the 5 lessons plans for this phase here Essay writing research SOW – Phase 1. There is nothing over-exciting so please don’t expect too much.  These are lesson designed for year 7 to experience analysis for what may be the first time.

sow 1


Phase 2:

It is the next phase that is causing me to lose sleep.  Once both classes have read and explored the different ideas and concepts in Ruthless we need to get on and write some analysis.

At first I wanted a thematic question – on injustice. After following the advice of several wise ones – thanks EMC and Fran N – I agreed this was perhaps too much.

So the essay question that both classes will tackle is “How does William De Mille present the character Judson Webb in Ruthless?” Bog standard. Potential for boredom. Potential for greatness.

Now these two classes will diverge.

Here I will teach one class PEE – the most unstructured, structured PEE approach I think I can get away with.  Students will have the broad strokes but I don’t want them to fail, so they won’t have a PEE sentence stem gap fill experience.

The other class will get something completely different. Spot the deliberate vagueness.  Despite this being less than a month away I am still kind of stuck on this one.  I don’t want to give them any structure at all. After all TEEPE is just PEE by another name.  But I also don’t want them to fail, so I need to do something.

In collaboration with my amazing colleagues I am slowly working it out.  I have a draft structure of these lessons worked out and if you fancy having a looksee let me know.

Things I don’t know:

  • Which class should do which? Names in a hat I suppose.
  • What a good essay that doesn’t use PEE looks like.
  • Whether I am reinventing a square wheel.
  • If this has any value at all.

Thank you for reading, if you have any advice or ideas please get in contact via the comments or twitter.

Have a great weekend.


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